Please enjoy this excerpt from the second novel in my upcoming mecha/Mil-SF saga, Combat Frame XSeed: Coalition Year 40. Book one launches in January, and book 2 will follow in March.
The boy hurried up the slope, scrambling over fallen logs and mossy boulders. The thinning, pine-seasoned air didn’t slow him. He’d long since gotten used to high altitude, even though he was only six.
He mostly thought of himself as the boy, because that was what the Captain usually called him. Sometimes, though, the Captain called him Tom. The boy never dared call the stern, graying man anything but Captain. He didn’t know if the Captain was his father, though in the secret corners of his heart he doubted it.
Still, the Captain was the only grownup the boy had ever known, as far as he could remember. The shaggy-haired but always clean-shaven man gave the boy much of what fathers in books always gave: shelter, instruction, food—a bowl of plain rice porridge for breakfast and rice with beans in the evening, with whatever meat the boy could catch for himself.
It was a hunt for the latter that had set the boy on his current path. He’d sighted a young rabbit behind the cabin and had given chase. The animal led him up and up the mountain, until the trees ended and the bald peak loomed above.
A quick search—the boy could take in many details at a glance—showed no sign of the rabbit. He abandoned the hunt and continued upward, drawn by the lofty spectacle of the peak.
Minutes later, the boy reached the top. He stood on the summit as chill winds whipped his sturdy homemade clothes and looked out over the plains stretching from the foothills. A pair of vast shadowed circles punched into the uniform green and yellow grid below marked two of the places where the Socs had started the Long Winter and the Starving Years by throwing rocks at the earth.
Socs aren’t human. He heard the Captain’s low yet iron-hard voice as if the old man stood behind him, but he resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. They’re insects that swarm over the earth and make it like their colonies. You can’t reason with them. Never forget.
Alone on his windswept perch, a new thought occurred to the boy. The Socs had killed many people while turning what had been called Colorado in the FMAS—and the United States before that—into North American Mountain Region 7. What if two of those murdered people, or the millions of dead from around the world, had been his parents?
The boy reflexively fought the urge to cry, but hot moisture stung his cheeks. The icy wind blowing off the farm grids below scoured his tears away.
Catching sight of an angular rock’s shadow gave the boy a start. He’d woken up that morning to find the Captain gone and a note with his cold porridge saying only: “Back at noon.” The shadow said he had only ten minutes to reach the cabin before the Captain returned. The boy was not forbidden to explore the wooded hills unsupervised; quite the opposite. But he knew the note’s double meaning from hard experience.
The boy barreled down the mountain, scratching his limbs and face on sharp branches and nearly falling twice. Only the certain knowledge that no one would come for him if he broke a leg or his back kept him on his feet.
At last he reached the almost invisible cleft in a grassy hillside that led into the small, bowl-shaped valley where the cabin stood. The boy ran, threading his way between the pines as his lungs sucked in cool air and forced it out hot. He half-stumbled up front steps made from cut logs, and his heart froze when he saw the Captain standing two meters inside the door with his left hand behind his back.
The boy started to speak. “I’m—”
With a horizontal motion of his right hand, the Captain signaled him to silence. The boy heard mewling, much like the sounds his prey made before the kill, coming from two sources inside the cabin.
“You’re lonely here,” the Captain said. “I know that loneliness well.” His left hand emerged from behind his back, holding a black puppy by the scruff of the neck. The little dog whined pitifully.
Of course, the Captain was right. The boy’s yearning for the companionship he’d never known almost made him rush to the dog despite himself. Hope welled in his heart, but he knew enough to question it. “For me?”
“If,” the Captain said. He finished by pulling a gray .38 caliber revolver from the side pocket of his brown felt coat.
Terror rooted the boy to the steps, but the Captain inclined his head toward the dog. “For him,” the old man said. He nodded to his left. “Or for her.”
The boy crept up the last step and through the cabin door. A blond woman in a blue jumpsuit sat tied to a stout oak chair. The cloth gag in her mouth muffled her pleas.
The Captain held out the gun, grip-first.
“Do I have to?” asked the boy.
“No,” the Captain said. “You always have a choice—between action and inaction, strength and weakness; fighting and surrender. And as always, those you care for will pay the price if you choose wrong.”
The boy took the gun. It felt heavy in his small hands, but not unfamiliar. The woman’s mewling turned to frantic squeals.
“I’ve never killed a person,” said the boy.
“She’s not a person,” the Captain said. “She’s a Soc.”
The boy stared down the gun’s sights at his target. She looked like a person, with her wide blue eyes and tear-streaked face. He remembered crying on the mountaintop. Because he was alone. Because of Socs like her.
He exhaled and pressed the trigger. The gun thundered, and the woman’s head snapped back. He smelled blood. The Captain took the gun and handed him the dog. Its plump furry body snuggled into the crook of his arm, but the connection was gone. The boy felt nothing.
The Captain stooped down and spoke to the boy. “The way you are now—the thinking without feeling when you kill animals and burn them; when you killed that Soc—you must not be that way with the dog. Soon you’ll be sent among normal people, and you mustn’t be that way with most of them.”
“I understand,” said the boy. “I think.”
The Captain scratched behind the dog’s ear. “To him, and to most people, you will be Tom—Thomas Dormio. To the Socs, you will be Arthur Wake.”
Arthur nodded. The puppy squirmed in his arms, and Tom hugged it to his chest. Its tiny heart beat beside his, and the connection returned.
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